When extreme cold leaves, so do emergency shelters
CHAMPAIGN — When the polar vortex brought subzero temperatures earlier this year, local agencies and nonprofits answered the call and made sure people with nowhere to go had a warm place to stay.
But lacking adequate funding and resources to keep those emergency warming shelters open beyond the throes of winter, they disappear with the extreme temperatures. And even a normal Midwestern winter is still pretty darn cold.
The vast majority of beds in Champaign County's shelters are offered only through transitional programs and are spoken for. Other beds fill up quickly.
While local agencies try to come up with a solution for people in emergency situations, there are dozens of homeless people in Champaign County who have no guaranteed place to keep warm overnight.
Dan Davies, who knows those people firsthand from his regular Salvation Army canteen route, says they make do. But where they stay is often a mystery.
"We try to find out, and they really don't want us to know," Davies said. "I don't know what they do. I know in the past there are some places that have let them stay."
Austin's Place has some beds for women and the Salvation Army has some for men. Occasionally churches will open their doors to an overnight stay, but they often have trouble finding enough volunteers to stay for a full night, Davies said.
The options grow thin fast. Police departments and jails have worked as temporary warming shelters, but it's usually not an all-night option. Some camp in the woods. Often they stay in abandoned buildings for shelter.
"There's absolutely no place," Davies said.
In recent years, local agencies have scrambled to provide emergency shelters, especially for families. Right now, there is no place in Champaign County for a homeless family to stay together, but officials are hoping that will change soon.
Housing adults is one thing. Accommodating children is another.
"When you add children to the mix, that comes with a whole new set of issues and challenges," said Kerri Spear, the city's neighborhood programs manager.
That need became apparent in the 1990s as the population of homeless children went on the rise, according to a city report. City and nonprofit officials are working with the Housing Authority of Champaign County and hope to open an emergency family shelter near Third and Park streets in Champaign later this year.
But "there are many pieces that still have to fit in place," said Beverly Baker, the director of community impact for the United Way of Champaign County. To this point, the agencies have faced financial obstacles.
"The biggest hurdle has been finding a funding source that is sustainable so that the shelter's not always in crisis mode," Baker said.
Spear said "the dollars just keep shrinking" for local agencies, and until recent years, the need has gone largely unaddressed. Several years ago, the city set aside $50,000 in seed money to get the ball rolling on an emergency family shelter.
"Somebody had to put their foot down and say we're going to help fund this," Spear said. "We did that."
In the intervening time, officials have tried to fill the gap with temporary programs. From February through August 2013, with $75,000 in funding from the United Way and administration by the Champaign County Regional Planning Commission, motel vouchers were offered to families which, for one reason or another, suddenly needed a place to stay.
During those months, 32 families — 43 adults and 68 children — were housed with the vouchers. Of those, 26 families were able to transition into stable housing. According to Baker, 70 households were denied assistance because the program was at capacity.
Baker said that program is being offered again this year, and they hope it will hold the community over until the permanent emergency family shelter opens.
Homelessness is especially hard on children — it can affect their performance in school, for one thing.
"With our limited resources I think we really have to look at our most vulnerable population," Spear said.
With a lot of focus on the most vulnerable, another gap remains open for now. Because most space available in Champaign County homeless shelters for individual adults is through transitional programs, beds don't often open up.
"There is a gap," Baker said. "That is something that service providers have been talking about, and we've fortunately had some very caring community members that have stepped up and in working with their church have pieced something together."
Baker said it's not a new problem, but it is one that has started to gather a lot of attention lately. It does not look like there will be a good solution this winter, but she said "it's given everybody some food for thought" as they start thinking about next winter.
"This was a pretty extreme stretch for several weeks that really just brought it into perspective for people and into the community's viewpoint," Baker said.
This is an updated version of the story which includes information not previously available about the 2013 motel vouchers.